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Elders Propose Veto Reform in Cases of Atrocities

Photo credit: Neville Elder | The Elders

A high-level panel took up the subject of preventing mass atrocities and how the United Nations Security Council can do better at the International Peace Institute on September 26th 2015, during the week marking the opening of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly.

The expert panel focused in on assessment of proposals to prevent the use of a veto by the Council’s Permanent Five (P5) members in cases of mass atrocities. Proposals from France, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT), and The Elders that restrict or prevent the use of the veto, were critically assessed. The Elders, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the International Peace Institute co-hosted the discussion.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and a member of The Elders, said, “The veto power should not be seen as a ‘right’ or reward for the P5, but a mark of the heavy responsibilities these countries bear for the maintenance of international peace and security. This responsibility is particularly acute when the Security Council considers how to prevent mass atrocities.”

Peter Wilson, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, later agreed with Ms. Brundtland that the veto was a responsibility not a right, and committed the UK to not using its veto in mass atrocity situations.

While the discussion centered on Security Council reform related to the use of the veto in particular, the related issue of Security Council expansion was also discussed. The French proposal calls for “the accession to a permanent seat of Germany, Brazil, India, Japan, an Arab country, as well as a greater presence of African countries.” The existing permanent members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Elders suggested an alternative to expanding permanent membership. “We think that we should have a third kind of membership – where they are re-electable, and they have to be able to confirm to the broader community of the General Assembly, that they are performing in a way that they would like to re-elect them after a certain term,” Ms. Brundtland said.

Returning to the issue of the use of the veto, she noted the importance of Security Council unity and emphasized the dangers for international peace and security should the members remain divided.

She discussed the two codes of conduct on veto restraint put forth by the ACT group and France. The ACT proposal was “the most realistic,” and the proposed French code of conduct “goes in the right direction,” she said, but, “in The Elders’ view, it may be overly bureaucratic and complicated.”

The Elders prefer to “focus on the need to encourage a new spirit of dialogue and collaboration, rather than on a formal, enforceable mechanism,” she said.

Hina Jilani, a lawyer and human rights defender from Pakistan, joined her fellow Elder Ms. Brundtland in a call for the veto to be treated with the sense of responsibility it deserves. “No government, no matter what the circumstances, should be allowed to commit mass atrocities and escape accountability,” she said. “The UN Security Council must put aside individual political interests and focus on a responsible, collaborative approach to the enforcement of international law.”

With this unique responsibility, the P5 must “not use their veto without explaining their decision and proposing an alternative plan in accordance with international law that can achieve the same goals,” she said.

Salil Shetty, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, spoke from the perspective of civil society. “It is clear to us that the abuse of the veto by the P5, particularly Russia, China, and the US, has blocked the UN Security Council from performing its core function of protecting civilians,” he said. “The lack of effective response in Syria and Gaza has not only cost many lives, but also, eroded the credibility of the UN Security Council.”

Amnesty International has called for the voluntary restraint of the veto by the P5 since 2013, and he urged member states to take up this “leadership moment” for reform, because “it is what humanity needs,” he said.

Mr. Shetty counseled the international community not to lose hope in achieving such change, recalling two recent achievements once thought unattainable. “When Amnesty International and others started talking about an Arms Trade Treaty, everyone called it a joke, and said it was never going to happen. Well, we have it now,” he said. He also cited the success of Amnesty’s campaign against the death penalty, now widely abolished.

Speaking of the current moment and its possibilities, he said, “We are in a transitional situation, where the old is not working, and the new is under construction. So, there is a space where amazing things can happen, and they can happen very quickly.”

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former UN Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations and President of the International Crisis Group, endorsed a code of conduct on veto restraint. “The way The Elders’ proposal builds on the French proposal is actually quite good, because it’s a way to push further the conversation, to make sure the possibility of a veto does not end that conversation,” he said.

“What is true, is that the veto too often has become an excuse to stop the conversation, to stop the efforts to really think through a solution,” he said.

Recognizing he might “get into hot water” by weighing in on another contentious debate, Mr. Guéhenno offered his opinion on the use of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the Security Council. While the ICC “has a fundamental role to play,” it should not be seen as a tool of the Security Council in crisis management, or introduced at the wrong time, he said.

“Justice cannot and should not be turned on and off, and so justice is not a good instrument of crisis management. So, I would be wary of the way the Security Council, precisely because it is more often concerned with rhetoric, and seen to be doing something, than really doing something, uses the ICC,” he said.

Deputy UN Secretary-General Jan Eliasson emphasized three points in his intervention. The Security Council must “restrain the use of the veto, and seek to establish a voluntary code of conduct,” he said.

His second point was that the UN must consider the political dimensions of peacekeeping operations. For example, “If we look at fighting ISIL in Syria or Iraq, it has to be combined with a sufficiently smart political strategy,” he said.

His final point summarized a key recommendation from a few of the High-Level Reviews the UN had conducted for its 70th anniversary. “Prevention must become a rule, not the exception,” he said.

Hardeep Singh Puri, Vice President of the International Peace Institute, gave introductory remarks, and Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), moderated the conversation.

Related coverage:

The Elders and Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect call upon the UN Security Council to act to prevent mass atrocity crimes” (The Elders, September 26, 2015)
Covering R2P @ #UNGA (Storify, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect)

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